Blocks in the "Quilt Code"

Every "Code" proponent has her own list of blocks, but here are a few of those most commonly claimed. 

Log Cabin

All the "Code" versions that specify a pattern include this design.  However, there is considerable disagreement over what the pattern actually meant.

  • In Hidden in Plain View, Ozella says it instructs slaves to "dig a log cabin" in Cleveland, but the authors speculate that no actual cabin was involved; rather, they say, this meant either drawing a secret symbol on the ground or the amount of time it would take to build a log cabin. 

  • Citing Fry, Dobard also says the Log Cabin quilts may have been hung outside to signify an Underground Railroad "safe house". 

  • Stroud, on the other hand, says the block is "a sign that someone needed assistance." 

  • Wilson - Ozella's niece - says the pattern refers to the Canadian government giving escaped slaves land for every acre they cleared. Yet the only such land grants I found predated the Underground Railroad, and were for blacks who had fought for Britain in the War of 1812.   Canadian land was only "free" until the government surveyed it, after which those living on it either had to purchase it or leave. Many black settlements disbanded as a result. 

Closeup of c.1865"Courthouse Steps" Log Cabin made of narrow strips of  gauzy wool "delaine" foundation pieced on calico. 

Each strip is about 1/4" wide.  

Click to see full quilt.

I could find no reference to a land-for-labor offer such as Wilson describes.  Even if such a grant existed, Wilson does not explain how knowledge of  it would assist in escape.

  • Boswell combines all these ideas:   she says that (a) drawn in the dirt, the pattern signified a friend; (b) the quilt pattern instructed slaves to set up a home in a free state (why did they need to be told this?); and also (c) indicated a safe house depending on the color of the center, as described below.  She also claims the block was "invented" by Susan B. Anthony, and says Anthony hung a quilt in her window if the house was safe; if a quilt was not displayed, it meant her father "who opposed abolition" was home and therefore the house was not safe.  (In fact, Anthony's father was a prominent abolitionist long before his daughter got involved.)

  • Louisianan Cely Pedescleaux claims that "a log cabin quilt always has a light and a dark side as part of its design. If the quilt was displayed light side up, that meant the fugitives would be running by day; dark side up meant running by night."   How would Pedescleaux suggest these 19th century Log Cabin quilts be hung so that the light or dark side was "up"?

  • Fuller's description of the Log Cabin is particularly complex. In a February 2004 lecture at a Sacramento library, she stated: 

    The Log Cabin quilt is a map of the town. See all these squares? They represent houses. So the slaves would know how big the towns were. Here is a house and here is a house. (Pointing.) Black is a symbol of danger so you see these black squares in the center? Slaves would know that that house was not safe. Do you notice the other squares in the centers? They have little colored flames in them, to represent a fireplace. You know how safe and warm it is to snuggle up to a fire? These squares with flames in them showed the slaves this house was safe.

    from notes taken at lecture by Marilyn Maddelena Withrow; email to author, 2/9/2005

The color of the Log Cabin's center is of great importance to "Code" proponents, but the colors' meanings seems to be up for debate.  According to African textile historian Peggy Gilfoy, among the Ashanti gold signifies wealth, and blue and black signify danger and death.  Compare this to the claims of "Code" proponents:

  • Fry says that the centers of these "signal" Log Cabin quilts were black - which apparently meant both "safe house" and "someone might die". But she provides no source for this information, and her other claims about quilts are demonstrably unreliable.   

  • Hopkins's fictional Under the Quilt of Night uses a Log Cabin with a blue center to indicates safety.

  • Boswell's quilt works like a traffic light. She says the quilt signified a "safe house" if the center was black;  a yellow center meant "caution," and a red center meant "danger".  

  • Lecturers Fuller and Toni Leoman disagree, claiming that a red center indicated a fire was burning and the home was safe to come into; a black center meant that the fire was out, danger was close and to keep moving. 

  • Dobard speculates "black" was really blue (Fry says blue "protects the maker"), but then points out that a Log Cabin quilt owned by Underground Railroad conductor William Still had "a yellow center", so perhaps yellow was the "safe house" signal since "in Africa, the color yellow is used to signify life."  

  • Meanwhile, "quilt code" lecturer Gloria Bowen claims that the centers of the Still quilt are not yellow, but black!

A variety of 19thc. Log Cabin quilts.  Which color center is the "right" one - and what does it mean?

Whatever the color of the Log Cabin center, the assertion about a "safe house" signal is directly contradicted by Tobin's post-publication statement that Ozella said quilts were not hung as signals, which in turn is contradicted by her niece's  claims that they were.  

Presumably in an effort to prove some sort of quilt/Underground Railroad connection, author Tobin points to a Log Cabin quilt pictured in her book, which she says is "dated 1840-1850....It was a gift given to the Rev. William King by the former slaves he took to Ontario and freed."  But according to Alice Newby, retired curator of the Buxton (Ontario) Museum where the quilt is housed, while it was indeed a gift to Rev. King from his former slaves, the quilt has no connection at all to the Underground Railroad. The makers of the quilt were Rev. King's own slaves, whom he himself freed and who came with him to Canada in 1849; they did not escape, via the Underground Railroad or any other means.  The quilt, she says, dates from after the group arrived in Canada.  Newby, who is a descendant of the original Buxton settlers, described Hidden in Plain View as "totally ridiculous."  

While claims have been made that some Log Cabin quilts date to the antebellum period, written inquiries regarding how the age of these quilts was determined either have received no response, or no evidence was offered documenting the quilt was anywhere near the age claimed.

In fact, the Log Cabin pattern seems to be limited to the North as a popular expression of Union sentiment; I have not been able to find any documented examples dating from before the Civil War.  Quilt historian Barbara Brackman notes in Quilts from the Civil War that the earliest date-inscribed quilt of this pattern is dated 1869:

Quilt historian Virginia Gunn has found three written references to Log Cabin quilts as fundraisers for the union cause in 1863, the likely year for the beginning of the style. At that point the underground Railroad no longer functioned as it had before the War....So we must not imagine Log Cabin quilts as signals in the decade before the War. Rather, like Emancipation, the pattern grew out of the War. It is more historically accurate to view their symbolic function as an indicator of allegiance to President Lincoln and the Union cause...One indication that a Union connection [with the pattern] continued is the relative lack of late nineteenth-century Log Cabin quilts made in the former Confederate states.

Flying Geese

Brackman notes five different patterns with this name.  How do we know which one the "Code" uses?

  • Fry claims that "Triangles in quilt design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of offering prayer."   She makes no mention of triangle patterns being used in a "code".

  • Stroud and Ozella say Flying Geese "reminded" slaves to head north.  Why would they need reminding? 

  • Boswell says the pattern instructed to take their cues on direction, timing and behavior (including stopping to rest and eat) from the migrating geese.   Were slaves likely to leave in the dead of winter, or forget to rest and eat along the way, that they had to be told otherwise?

  • Wilson uses the first block pictured, and says it instructed slaves to travel in whatever direction the 2 darkest triangles were then pointed, making the way the quilt was displayed critical.  But in a written reply to questions from elementary school students, author Tobin emphatically stated that Ozella never said the quilts were used as signaling devices. Is Ozella's niece wrong, or did Tobin misunderstand Ozella? If so, what else did Tobin misunderstand?  

  • In presenting a printed fabric in a Flying Geese pattern, Fuller said it was called Broken Plate, claiming that slaves believed that it was used in quilts because "when things were broken up, it would confuse people".  What help is this to escaping slaves?

Tumbling Blocks

This pattern was first used by Victorian ladies to show off scraps of their finest silk fabrics. But Wilson says this pattern was hung on a clothesline to tell slaves "to gather food, clothing, and anything that could be used as weapons". Boswell generally agrees with her.

19thc.Tumbling Blocks quilt, courtesy Teri Ascolese.

But Wilson also says it "was the code name for Niagara Falls, the final landmark before crossing into Canada and freedom," and that  escaped slaves "crossed the [Niagara] river in boats, while others swam."  This writer grew up a few miles from Niagara Falls.  Here is a view of the river above the falls; below the Falls the Niagara is 100+ feet deep, in a deep, rocky gorge, and travels at a speed of 8-22mph). (The current water flow is only about half what it would have been in the 19th century.)  A Niagara history website recounts one rowboat adventure:

July 16th 1853 - three men working on a dredging scow (barge) which was anchored in the Niagara River east of Goat Island [i.e., above the Falls] decided to go to shore during the afternoon. The only way to shore was by use of a row boat. As the three men started rowing to shore, they soon discovered that the current of the water was much stronger than they had anticipated. Suddenly one of their oars broke. The small row boat entered the American Channel rapids and swept downstream. The rowboat capsized. Two of the men were swept to their death over the brink of the American Falls. The third man, Samuel Avery, was able to grab onto some tree roots growing from a rock just east of Chapin Island. Avery spent the night stranded in the cool fast flowing water. The sound of the rapids prevented any of Avery's screams for help to be heard.

The next morning, Avery's plight was observed by several tourists. Efforts to rescue Avery began. Initial efforts consisted of releasing boats and raft from the Bath Island Bridge. None of the craft were able to reach Avery. Finally a boat which was tethered to the Bath Island Bridge was guided downstream and reached Samuel Avery. With little strength left, Avery was able to climb into the boat but the boat immediately capsized throwing Avery back into the turbulent waters. Throwing his hands up in surrender, Avery let out a final scream, fell backwards into the water and was swept to his death over the American Falls.

How likely is it that slaves would swim across the river anywhere near the Falls? 

A 19th century view of the Niagara River below the Falls. The Suspension Bridge was over 1,000 feet long and spanned a gorge more than 200 feet deep.  The water moves at up to 20mph.  Travelers could also hazard the ferry crossing. "Code" proponents claim fugitives swam across this river to Canada.

In fact, escaped slaves specifically describe using the ferry at Youngstown, at the northernmost end of the river, almost at Lake Ontario; there was also a ferry below the Falls (see image at left). In 1848 the first footbridge was built across the 200-foot-deep gorge, followed by a railroad bridge in 1855. Harriet Tubman is known to have brought some of her passengers across that bridge by train. But none of the "Codes" mention it.




Like what you see? Please help support this site!


More blocks...